Habanero’s Mexican Grill

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Name: Habanero’s Mexican Grill

Location: 3001 N Sherman Ave, Madison, WI 53704

Ambiance: Casual, take out

Price: $

Best Dish: Tacos

Madison has a lot of Mexican places, all with varying degrees of success. Habanero’s is unique because it serves food in the Chipotle style, with the glass barrier and the ability to customize. They used to be located in a rather sketchy building that was a garish neon orange and blue, but have since relocated to a spot in the strip mall next to Benvenuto’s. With steel topped tables sparsely distributed in the restaurant, they aren’t exactly a sit down place — however, they do serve outstanding, quick Mexican food.

Habanero’s has the standard Mexican fast food fare — burritos, tacos, quesadillas, etc. However, they also have tortas, which are delicious. My personal favorite is their tacos (3 for around $8) — wrapped in two warm flour tortillas, one order comes with a generous serving of three tacos. Both their mild salsa verde and their spicy salsa roja are incredibly flavorful, with just the right amount of spice to be tasty without drowning out other flavors. Their guacamole is creamy and has a nice tartness to it from the lime, but my favorite are their fajita veggies — the onions are caramelized well, and the peppers are cooked down so they’re soft while retaining their structure, and they are spiced well. Vegetarian tacos often suffer from a lack of flavor and components — however, that is not a problem at Habanero’s. They also have a unique addition: veneno, or their pickled onions and habaneros. Although the name translates to venom, I found it to be more vinegary (in the pickle sense) than spicy, and it cuts through the rest of the flavors well.

They also serve horchata, and while I am personally not a fan of cinnamon, my friend who is said it was tasty. Although they’re a little out of the way, Habanero’s is worth the trip for some quick, delicious Mexican food that isn’t Chipotle or another chain. I recommend their spicy salsas — however, if you have a milder palate, the pico de gallo and salsa verde will be just as flavorful.

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Bloom Bake Shop

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcake

Name: Bloom Bake Shop

Location: 1851 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711 (the first one opened in Middleton, located at 1834 Parmenter St, Middleton, WI 53562)

Ambience: Chic

Price: $-$$

Best Dish: Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcake

Gourmet bakeries tend to fall on the pricier side, but I fall in the category that is willing to pay way too much for my food. Admittedly, this place initially seems a little too pricey to be worth it — at $3.50 a cupcake, it is a lot of money for a sweet treat. Bloom has everything from whoopie pies to brownies, but my personal favorites are their cupcakes and donuts. They also have savories and coffee, but I haven’t tried them. That being said, this place is definitely worth it, if only for a once in a while, especially if you are gluten free or vegan.

My friend and I got three cupcakes and a donut. The cupcakes were lemon vanilla, chocolate raspberry rose, and chocolate peanut butter, the donut was sweet potato. I’ll admit that I was pretty hesitant about the sweet potato donut, but I was very pleasantly proved wrong. The donut was crisp on the outside, with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and soft and tender on the inside. The sweet potato flavor was not overwhelming at all — it hung out in the background, adding a mysterious layer of flavor. Honestly, if I had not known, I probably wouldn’t have even guessed that it was sweet potato.

Their cupcakes are also delicious. The chocolate raspberry rose cupcake was a little on the dry side, and I could have used some more raspberry jam filling. The lemon vanilla had a nice tang, but the chocolate peanut butter took the (cup)cake. Generously filled with rich ganache and topped with a creamy peanut butter frosting, the hint of saltiness from the peanut butter perfectly offsets the sweetness from the ganache. The cupcake was moist, and melted in my mouth when I took a bite — and actually had the perfect ratio of frosting to cupcake.

Bloom deserves a visit, even if it’s only for one of their delicious chocolate peanut butter cupcakes or unique sweet potato donuts. Adorably decorated in baby blue and white tile, it’s a great place for a Saturday morning brunch — even if your wallet will shed a tear at the thought of spending $3.50 on a cupcake.

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Hurts Donuts

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The Homer Simpson Donut

Name: Hurts Donuts

Location: 2831 Parmenter St, Middleton, WI 53562

Ambience: Casual

Price: $-$$

Best Dish: Nutella Donut

Madison has seen a lot of new donut places, and one I have been meaning to go to since they opened up late last year is Hurts Donuts. Out in the suburb of Middleton, Hurts is open 24 hours and has plenty of unique flavors, making them a good place to go to for a late-night craving.

Hurts Donuts has a lot of flavors — among them are German Chocolate, the “Cereal” Killer, salted caramel, the Homer Simpson donut, and the nutella donut. We bought half a dozen, which cost around $10. One of my main issues with Hurts was that their donuts were simply too sweet. There was nothing to counteract the overwhelming sweetness in my mouth, and having something tangy to cut through would have really helped. The donuts were also on the denser side, and I personally am more of a fan of the lighter ones. The one donut I really enjoyed was the Nutella donut, which was light and dusted with cinnamon sugar. The fluffiness was perfect on this one, and despite the thick dollop of Nutella in the center, it wasn’t weighed down by it. My other favorite was the salted caramel, which had a good amount of saltiness to balance out the richness of the caramel. I could not say the same for the other flavors, which tended to have too much going on for my taste — there were too many components where I would have preferred simplicity.

That being said, Hurts Donuts is great for a 2 AM craving or for when you really need a sugar rush. Many people will appreciate the richness and complexity, but I just happen to be someone who likes her donuts simple. The originality of a flavor like the “Cereal” Killer is one of their strengths, and while I personally prefer Greenbush Bakery, Hurts will definitely satisfy a sweet tooth.

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[Top, from left]: Homer Simpson, Nutella, Cosmic Brownie. [Bottom, from left]: German Chocolate, Salted Caramel, Apple Pie.

Nitty Gritty

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Chocolate Milkshake

Name: Nitty Gritty

Location: 223 N Frances St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Casual dining, sports bar

Price: $$$

Best Dish: Roasted Garlic Burger

Although best known for birthday traditions, the Nitty stands on its own as a great place to get a hearty burger. With a sports bar atmosphere, they provide classic American dining and (supposedly) decent beer. They are admittedly a little on the expensive side, but their easy substitutions makes them an unusually suitable burger place for vegetarians.

 

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Roasted Garlic Burger

Although they do offer a selection of three vegetarian burgers, I highly recommend subbing in. Any of the Nitty’s burgers can have a veggie patty or a black bean patty substituted in for them for a $1 more. I would recommend their black bean patty because it’s moist and holds together well — two things that I find very difficult to find in any other restaurant’s black bean burgers. Their Chipotle burger and their Roasted Garlic burger ($10.25 before sub for both) are both delcious. The chipotle aioli adds wonderful flavor to the burger, however, I wish that the chipotle flavor was stronger. The Sheboygan hard roll holds up well with the moisture that the aioli adds. My personal favorite is their Roasted Garlic burger — with a strong garlic flavor from the sweet roasted garlic, it complements the black bean burger well and stands on its own. The best part of the burger is the crispy onion strings, which add a really nice textural element between the creaminess of the black bean burger.

In terms of sides, the Nitty has decent cheese curds ($8.25 as appetizer, $1.75 as a side), but they could have been crispier and chewier. I enjoyed both their fries and their onion rings, which were crisp and didn’t get soggy even after sitting a while while I ate my burger. Their milkshakes ($5.99 for virgin, $7.50 with alcohol) are also fantastic — they’re creamy and rich with a strong flavor, and the ice doesn’t settle to the bottom. At $5.99, they seem pricy — however, there’s enough that can it can be split between two people, and the staff is happy to do that.

The Nitty has some of the best black bean burgers I’ve had. If you can take the multiple rounds of Happy Birthday blasted over the speakers, the Nitty is a Madison classic that has great burgers and milkshakes.

 

Porter Coffee

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Name: Porter

Location: 640 W Washington Ave, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Hipster coffee shop

Price: $

Best Dish: Mocha

To be fair, I can’t exactly pick any other dish from Porter because I haven’t eaten anything else. I went at 9 AM, and had already had breakfast. My companion did have their avocado toast and enjoyed it — however, for almost $6 for avocado on toast, it seemed a little overpriced.

Porter’s biggest draw is its atmosphere. Tucked behind a bicycle shop just off of the railroad tracks, it’s very inconspicuous. In fact — it was so inconspicuous that Google Maps sent me around in circles for 10 minutes before I finally called my friend to ask where it was. Right outside the shop, there’s a stationary, giant yellow train just waiting there. The inside has an exposed pipe and a modern yet cosy vibe, despite how small it is. The exposed countertops and brick add to the ambience, as does the single, large square table in the center of the coffeeshop that serves as the main seating. Having everyone sit around the same coffee table really does encourage conversation — as I found when I spoke to the person sitting next to me about the newspaper.

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As for their drinks, their mocha is delicious. It tastes even better because their whipped cream is light, fluffy, and clearly homemade. As someone who generally does not enjoy whipped cream, this was a very pleasant surprise. Their mocha was a little bit on the stronger side, but it still had the distinctive flavor of the chocolate. The rest of their coffee menu is pretty standard — cortados, macchiatos, lattes, and the like.

Porter is a lovely place to go for a date or just a long conversation with friends. I wouldn’t recommend it for studying simply because it is so small. It’s a great addition to Madison’s local coffeeshops, and definitely a hidden gem.

Update: Porter’s sandwiches are also amazing. Their Veggie sandwich, with tangy artichokes that add a heartiness, arugula, and gooey cheese is phenomenal and is surprisingly one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.

Sol’s on the Square

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Bibimbap

Name: Sol’s on the Square

Location: 117 E Mifflin St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Warm, family style

Price: $$$

Best Dish: Bibimbap

Korean food stands alone from other Asian food — it tastes completely different from Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai food. Although they’re famous for their BBQ style meat, their vegetarian options are often very flavorful. Madison has two Korean restaurants that I’m aware of — one in Sauk Square, and Sol’s, which is out by the Capitol. Tucked away next to the Heritage Tavern, Sol’s is a nice sit down restaurant with some great vegetarian options.

They pass around four small dishes to share as a table — pickled cucumbers, pickled potato, bean sprouts, and kimchi. I found the pickled potato to have an odd texture, although it was exceptionally flavored all the way through. My favorite was the cucumber. The tartness of the vinegar was just sharp enough to lend flavor, but it didn’t drown out the vegetable and it was well paired with the coolness of the cucumber.

We started with a kimchi pancake (11.99) to share for the table. While it comes with seafood and bacon, the staff was more than willing to make it vegetarian by combining vegetables and kimchi in place of the seafood. The pancake was crisp on the edges and well caramelized, complementing the chewiness of the dough. The kimchi, which tends to be very strong, was muted — I wish there was more kimchi flavor. Sol’s bibimbap ($14.99) was delicious — literally sizzling in the iron bowl, the rice had crisped up well on the bottom and was beautiful to look at with a rich array of vegetables. It included wilted spinach, razor thin slices of zucchini, and carrots that were still crunchy, along with tofu on the top. I wish they had used a firmer tofu, since this tended to crumble when I tried to pick it up with chopsticks. I really liked their spicy sauce, which combined a unique sweetness with a slight kick. It could have been spicier, but it allowed the flavors to come through a little more.

Sol’s is a great Korean restaurant in Madison — it doesn’t come close to matching the quality of Korean food in Chicago or Seattle, where I’ve had the best Korean food, but it does a good job with what it does. The food leaves you feeling content, a balanced, colorful meal even when eating out.

Dough Baby Bakery

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Dough Babies

Name: Dough Baby Bakery

Location: 511 State St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Hipster, cute

Price: $

Best Dish: Dough Babies

Specialty donuts have gained quite the following — with Hurts Donuts opening up in Middleton, the classic offerings of Greenbush back on Regent, and now Dough Baby Bakery on State Street, Madison’s donut market is pretty saturated. But Dough Baby Bakery stands out from the rest, and not just because they use locally grown, mostly organic ingredients.

Dough Baby has a constantly changing menu. They adjust for the season and although they have some stand-bys (like their chocolate cake donuts), the fact that you can pick up something unique every time you go is a huge plus. Their attention to ingredients comes through — the raspberry frosted donut I had just after they opened tasted like actual raspberry, not just vague flavor syrup. While their traditional donuts are delicious, Dough Baby really shines with its stuffed donuts. Their apple pie stuffed donut had apple slices coated in cinnamon sugar. The apples maintained their bite, adding tartness that cut through the sweetness, and the flavor diffused throughout the donut. Also fantastic was their pancake batter filled donut. I expected it to become soggy and overly sweet, but the donut held up and the batter was just the right amount of sweetness.

My personal favorite donut is one they have every day — their dough babies, or little donut holes coated in cinnamon sugar. They’re light and the perfect complement to a cup of coffee. At around $2.25 a donut, they are a little on the expensive side but it is definitely worth it for the quality.